Andrew Jackson’s life may “suck in particular,” but thankfully the musical about his life does not suffer the same fate.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not a great show in itself, but a wonderful company, led by the extraordinary Elle Crane, breathes new life into the material and makes it rock.
As its title suggests, this musical traces the life of America’s seventh president. When his family dies in an Indian attack, young Andrew vows to stand up to the natives. Rampaging through the South, he acquires new land for the young United States, such that the Washington elite begin to worry about his power. They thwart his first quest for the White House, but he is finally victorious four years later, at the expense of losing his wife. Jackson’s attempts to get the people involved in the governing process fail miserably, and once he makes a final decision about Indian removal both he and the audience must grapple with his legacy.
The show’s book is witty and smart, effortlessly making Jackson’s problems ring true for modern day audiences.
The punk rock score, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. Many of the group numbers are conventional, unmemorable rock anthems, but the solos and duets give a little more breathing room, and are thus more enjoyable.
Director James Demetriades has done an admirable job replicating a Broadway production on the Blackbox stage. Though the show mostly uses a conventional center stage setup, he is particularly inventive in his use of a small alcove stage left, on which many of the play’s important actions occur.
The three-piece band (piano, drums and guitar) plays the score with energy and spirit, and they even get to comment on the action at certain points, leading to some funny moments.
The set is painted black (apropos for a punk-flavored show), and the only wall decorations are blood-spattered newspapers- this helps set the mood as the audience walks in.
Adding to the punk rock aesthetic is the costumes. The cast is mostly dressed in black, with the exception of Jackson, who sports a white T-shirt and tight pants (there are many comments about that aspect of his wardrobe).
Wearing those tight pants, Elle Crane oozes charisma. She makes the audience forget about the gender switch that has occurred as soon as Jackson walks on stage. She wrings all the emotion out of Jackson’s songs (the best ones in the show, particularly “I’m Not That Guy” and “The Saddest Song.”) She also delivers her many monologues with ease- one near the end of the show, in which Jackson tries to make a deal with an Indian adviser he knows he will eventually betray, is so convincing that she has the audience in the palm of her hand.
The rest of the ensemble is impressive in its own right. As Rachel, Jackson’s wife who is forever rejected in favor of killing Indians, Sally Beriont lays bare the mix of love and pain on which the couple’s relationship is based(their courtship, set to the song “Illness as Metaphor,” is one of the show’s most memorable moments).
Michelle Corr’s Storyteller is mostly on hand to lighten the mood (she starts the show with a Halloween costume contest), but at the show’s end she effortlessly transforms into a powerful songstress to deliver the climactic number “Second Nature.”
Nick Motlenski provides genuine comic relief as Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s harried adviser who must field messages from all the people the president has angered. His high point is a scene in the Oval Office, where he deals hilariously with a president who has a cavalier disregard for authority and a Congress threatening censure.
Punk rock musicals are certainly an acquired taste, but any show’s shortcomings can be overlooked if it is performed well. FET’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a textbook example of how with the right people, good material can be elevated to new heights.
Disclaimer: Director James Demetriades and music director Ricky Bordelon are the critic’s roommates.